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14 July, the French National Day of Celebration

After living in Paris for 3 years, my love of France developed into a passion. My holiday home there allows me to explore the whole country.

Fireworks on the Eiffel Tower 14 juillet 2012

Fireworks on the Eiffel Tower 14 juillet 2012

Known as Bastille Day Almost Everywhere but France

In France, the 14 July is known as Quatorze Juillet, meaning... 14 July, or more formally as the Fête Nationale. It was first set up by law in 1880 to celebrate the national holiday of France. It is, of course, a public holiday and everything is closed. Until that law in 1880 was passed, popular celebrations could be, and were, held on all sorts of different days. For instance it was celebrated on 30 June 1878 during the Universal Exhibition.

La Fête de la Fédération or the Festival of the Federation

It was intended or hoped that this first commemoration of the storming of the Bastille in 1790 would be a day of reconciliation and unity between the people and the king. 60,000 people from the 83 different departments that made up France in those days joined together to celebrate on the Champs de Mars. Louis XVI was there and took an oath of allegiance to the nation and to the law.

Unfortunately, although a second event was held in 1792, by this time people had become very disillusioned and further attempts to hold another such event in 1815 ended in failure.

 The Fête de la Fédération, held in the Champ de Mars, in July 14, 1790. Woodcut by Helman, from a picture by C. Monet, Painter of the King.

The Fête de la Fédération, held in the Champ de Mars, in July 14, 1790. Woodcut by Helman, from a picture by C. Monet, Painter of the King.

Claude Monet, Rue Montorgueil, Paris, Festival of June 30, 1878.

Claude Monet, Rue Montorgueil, Paris, Festival of June 30, 1878.

What Happened to Bastille Day?

In a way, those of us in the English speaking world who call the 14 July Bastille Day, are mistaken.

By 1879, the new Third Republic was wanting to find a date to celebrate its foundation. It wasn't as straightforward as it might have seemed because there were many who felt the commemoration of the storming of the Bastille was too violent and bloody an image. They found a compromise when they decided to use the name Fête de la Fédération instead. It also occurred on 14 July (1790), the celebration therefore was of the unity of France in place of the violence of the storming of the Bastille, even though it was the same date.

14 July Today

These days the celebrations consists of feasting, fireworks, and in Paris and some garrison towns, there is a military parade. Some people think a military parade is really inappropriate in a democratic country in this day and age.

The military parade in Paris is the largest and oldest in Europe although there was none from 1940 to 1944 during the German occupation. In some years foreign troops are invited to take part. For instance in 2004, the centenary of the Entente Cordiale, British troops took part.

The parade is traditionally brought to an end by the Foreign Legion , which marches to a slower pace than other units: 88 steps per minute against 120 for the other units and 140 for the Alpine Corps.

Some music for a French atmosphere

I found myself listening to some French music while I was researching and writing this article and became more and more absorbed in it. I was hugely delighted to hear some old favourites, some from school days ("Il etait une bergere"), some more recently learnt (any of Edith Piaf - superb!!). All give a wonderful flavour of France.

Non, je ne regrette rien

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The Historical Background Made Simple

Storming of the Bastille and arrest of the Governor M. de Launay, July 14, 1789.

Storming of the Bastille and arrest of the Governor M. de Launay, July 14, 1789.

The 14th July is primarily a symbol of freedom, the symbolic date of the transition from monarchy to republic.

In the early months of the French Revolution, in 1789, the whole of France was in a state of extreme agitation. The representatives of the people, the deputies of the Third Estate, were in opposition to the king, Louis XVI and wanted to create a constitution. On 20 June 1789, the deputies took the Oath of the Jeu de Paume oath, that they would never separate and that they would meet when necessary it until the Constitution was established. This was the first victory of democracy over the monarchy.

The people were unhappy, starving, and sided with the deputies and decided to march to the Bastille. why the Bastille? It was a state prison that symbolized the absolutism and arbitrariness of the Ancien Regime.

On July 17, Louis XVI came to Paris to acknowledge the new National Guard. He was wearing the red and blue cockade and it seems that Lafayette, commander of the Guard, added the royal white to it. this infuriated the people and the revolution was underway.

Accordingly, the storming of the Bastille symbolizes freedom, democracy and the fight against all forms of oppression.

You can get an impression of the atmosphere of the time by reading "A Tale of Two Cities", by Charles Dickens. I don't think he needs any introduction from me. A Tale of Two Cities, available from Amazon, was set in the period of the French Revolution and though it is obviously fiction, it does provide a sense of the background and mood.


  • One town in France celebrates Quatorze Juillet ... in August!
  • On 11 July 1880, a by-law was passed to allow the town of Viriat to have their celebrations when the harvest was finished. Some argue that the reason for the delay was that the news of the storming of the Bastille was slow to reach Viriat because of the poor roads in the area. Whatever the reason, Viriat still maintains its unique celebration.
  • In 1971, women marched in the military parade for the first time.
  • In 1982, the parade took place at night.

Books about the French Revolution, from Amazon

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Shama.

I know Simon Schama best from the excellent "History of Britain" BBC series. It makes me want to read all his books, many of them award winning, and so this goes to the top of my list.

The Days of the French Revolution

Maybe, after all, I should have put this at the top of the list because it does give an over view of the history of the Revolution. It's probably a good place to start if you want to have some in depth understanding of the period, then move on to "Citizens", my personal favourite.

Le 14 Juillet in Real Life Explained

Have you ever seen 14 July celebrations? Where?

E L Seaton from Virginia on June 30, 2012:

St Cyr sur Mer Circa 1990! Viva La France!

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